In 2003, Dodgers closer Eric Gagne became just the ninth reliever in the history of Major League Baseball to win the Cy Young award, posting one of the most dominant seasons out of the bullpen in the modern era and adding to his record of 84 consecutive saves converted.
Of course, Gagne later showed up in the Mitchell Report, and just recently announced his French-language autobiography, in which he expresses his belief that 80 percent of his Dodgers teammates were using performance-enhancing drugs, as well. That's an unfortunate way to look at what could have been viewed as one of the all-time great seasons by a relief pitcher, but nine years later Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel is setting a new standard for dominance out of the bullpen.
And, like Gagne, Kimbrel deserves to win the NL Cy Young award.
The primary argument against recognizing a closer as the best pitcher in baseball — or any reliever, for that matter — is that they just don't throw as many innings as starting pitchers, and have far less impact on the final outcome of games. The usual reply to that train of thought is that closers are consistently pitching in high-leverage situations, so while they may not throw as many innings, ultimately their body of work should be weighted for relative difficulty.
All that being said, it is indeed difficult to make the case that a pitcher who throws 60 to 70 innings in a season should be considered as important to a ballclub as someone who throws 200 or more, regardless of the gravity of those fewer innings. However, there are some certain cases when a closer is just so dominant that his body of work deserves to be recognized as far and away more impressive than his peers.
Gagne was such a case in 2003, as is Kimbrel in 2012.
Coming into Wednesday's games, Kimbrel has thrown a total of 59 1/3 innings, capturing 39 saves in 42 opportunities while sporting a 1.07 ERA. That stat line, of course, easily indicates dominance, but it doesn't underscore just how unhittable the 24-year-old right-hander has been this year.
The easiest way to emphasize Kimbrel's dominance is to simply point out that he's faced 217 batters on the season, and has struck out 107 of them. That means if Kimbrel was to strike out the side in order in his next appearance, he would have struck out half the hitters he's faced on the season, which, suffice to say, is an incredible rate.
Now, a disclaimer: over just the past four or five years, aggregate strikeout rates among top-flight relievers has increased dramatically. For instance, behind Kimbrel's rate of 16.23 strikeouts per nine innings pitched this year comes Aroldis Chapman at 15.37 (among all pitchers with a minimum of 40 innings under their belt). In 2011, Kimbrel was second in MLB to Kenley Jansen, who had a rate of 16.10 K/9, and in 2010, Carlos Marmol led baseball with a mark of 15.99 K/9.
However, going back any further than that, the numbers fall off a cliff. In 2009, Jonathan Broxton led MLB with a rate of 13.50 K/9 and in 2008 Grant Balfour was at 12.65. In fact, over the last decade, the only relievers with strikeout rates over 13 K/9 prior to 2009 were Brad Lidge (twice, at 13.12 in 2005 and 14.93 in 2004), Francisco Rodriguez with 13.18 K/9 in 2004 and Gange's 2003 season — where he had a mark of 14.98 K/9.
So, yes, Kimbrel does seem to be at the leading edge of an aggregate wave of a trend, but that shouldn't diminish the appreciation of his overall brilliance. Of those with at least 40 innings pitched, only the Red Sox' Junichi Tazawa has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio (Kimbrel's is 7.64, while Tazawa has an impressive 8.60), Kimbrel owns an adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 381 (for reference, the all-time career leader is longtime closer Mariano Rivera, at 206, while Pedro Martinez comes in second at 154) he has an MLB-best .129 opponents' batting average and .178 slugging percentage, allowing just four extra-base hits on the season.
With all due respect to R.A. Dickey (who should be the only other person in the NL Cy Young discussion), Kimbrel's statistical brilliance trumps all, even if he doesn't throw as many innings as his starting pitcher counterparts. There are very few times a reliever should win such serious hardware, but there are very few times in the history of Major League Baseball we've seen similar dominance.